Five keys for Syracuse Orange against Pittsburgh Panthers

The No.1-ranked Syracuse Orange, fresh off a 57-44 victory over the Clemson Tigers, look to remain perfect (23-0, 10-0 ACC) when it travels to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to play the Panthers (20-4, 8-3 ACC). Syracuse defeated Pitt, 59-55, in the Carrier Dome earlier this season as freshman sensation Tyler Ennis scored the go-ahead layup with 1:47 left in regulation to secure the win.

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Christmas will need to have a big game if Keita is out

Syracuse will try for the second time this year to defeat a conference foe at home and then sweep them on the road. The Orange turned the trick against Miami by out-zoning another team playing zone defense. A repeat performance against the Panthers will be a much taller order as Syracuse, or, more specifically, Baye Moussa Keita, as he limps into the game after spraining his knee against Clemson. The 6-foot-10 backup center’s status is questionable. While Syracuse certainly wants to prevail in a tough conference road game, Keita’s a key cog to the Orange’s defense if it’s to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

» Related: How will Syracuse adjust with Keita potentially out?

For Syracuse to avoid its first blemish of the year, the Orange will have to pay specific attention to these five factors:

Glass Eaters

Syracuse has out-rebounded its opponents seven times through 10 conference games. When these two teams squared off back in January, the Panthers dominated the Orange on the boards to the tune of 35-24 including a whopping 16-4 margin on the offensive glass. Pitt plays a tough, physical style of basketball and prides itself on out-working teams in the rebounding department. The Orange will need to meet the Panthers’ level of physicality to keep them from converting second chance points and to limit Pitt’s offensive possessions.

Christmas in February

With DaJuan Coleman lost to season-ending knee surgery and Keita’s availability unknown, an even bigger burden will fall on center Rakeem Christmas. The junior will have to anchor the back of the 2-3 zone, be a force on the boards, and protect the rim all while staying out of foul trouble. When he picked up two quick fouls (his third and fourth of the game) early in the second half against Clemson, sophomore Jerami Grant was forced to play the center position in the zone. Though Grant is the Orange’s leading rebounder at 7.0 rpg, he doesn’t have the muscle that Christmas does. And, he’s too important on the offensive end to potentially be saddled with foul trouble while playing out of position on defense.

The Bench

If Keita is a no-go, expect to see increased minutes for forward Tyler Roberson and guard Michael Gbinije. While Gbinije has been serving as a back-up point guard to Ennis, because he stands at 6 foot 7 inches, he’s capable of playing one of the forward positions in the 2-3 zone. Both Gbinije and Roberson must be able to give their team quality minutes on defense, along with helping Grant and CJ Fair rebound, when Christmas is on the bench.

» Related: It’s a silly idea to think a loss would help Syracuse

Contain Lamar Patterson

The senior was a one-man wrecking crew against the Orange last time out leading all scorers with 18 points. Where Patterson was most deadly was from behind the arc as he knocked down 4-of-9 attempts. Pitt only converted one other 3-point shot the entire contest. Syracuse might be in luck as Patterson injured the thumb on his shooting hand in a recent win over Miami. He played with a wrap on the thumb last time out against Virginia Tech and missed all six of his 3s.

Crowd Control

The Petersen Events Center has been a house of horrors for Syracuse as it’s dropped five straight games dating back to the 2004-05 season. The last time Syracuse emerged victorious at Pittsburgh, assistant coach Gerry McNamara was a sophomore. The Panthers have one of the best home courts in the country. Getting off to a good start and keeping the students sitting on their hands instead of exercising their vocal cords will go a long way towards staying unbeaten.

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About Steve Auger

Steve Auger is a freelance writer whose work has covered a variety of topics including sports, pets, parenting, healthy living, local government and human interest stories. His work has been published on Care.com, Tom’s of Maine, Purina’s Petcentric.com and the Westford Patch. Steve’s been a diehard Syracuse sports fan for over 25 years. To this day, the words “Smart takes the shot” still make him cringe. Follow him on Twitter @Corner_Cube.
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